Film Review: “Suburbicon”

All of the ingredients for a clever film, without the cleverness.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching “Suburbicon.” That does not mean that I think it is a good film. For all of the intriguing ideas from “Suburbicon,” there is nothing that holds together this misshapen art project, which begs the question; what was it supposed to tell? Attempting to comprehend it leads only to frustration, despite some charming moments. It’s as if director George Clooney tried to glue a murder-mystery, a crime film, a historical drama, and a coming-of-age story all together without reading the assembly instructions. Clooney’s vision is unrefined and unrealized, a blot on an otherwise solid career.

The premise is disappointing; it has the potential to be great, but instead we’re left with a shoddy patchwork and an underwhelming sense of what could have been. “Suburbicon” is set in the growing suburban landscape of the late ‘50s, populated by innocent and pigheaded citizens contending with the end of white flight. A black family has moved into the neighborhood, violating their personal security against minorities. And then we’re rudely introduced to an entirely separate family, the Lodges, inappropriately interrupting a developing plot line in favor of delineating another. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his family are assaulted by a stout and slim duo who murder Gardner’s wife; he and the sister of his late spouse, Rose (Julianne Moore), fail to identify them during a police lineup. Another situation arises when a sweet-talking insurance agent (Oscar Isaac) accuses the Lodge family of insurance fraud, exacerbating the complexity of the narrative. And at the center of all this madness is Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe), the unfortunate son of Gardner and bystander to a story with as much organization as a retail store on Black Friday.

The execution is messy; the connection between each occurrence is tangential, at most. There’s an apparent intention that, as scenes pass, we’re supposed to find“Suburbicon”’s incredibly basic drama and irony fascinating. The film lists the Coen Brothers as contributors, after all, but draws on none of their spark or wit. Most of the film follows Nicky’s perspective as he spectates the various atrocities and felonies that his family and the people around him commit. His new black neighbors are racially harassed, his father and Rose scheme to run away to Aruba, criminals enter his home and attack his family; Nicky’s inability to influence the outcome of these events is supposed to be a source of conflict, but this is compromised by his jaded outlook and the mishmash of other characters and plots that require development. Perhaps sadder is that some characters don’t receive much development at all; Nicky’s uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) is slated to be a nice tough guy, but he barely receives screen time outside of a few kind words and implicit threats. The insurance agent that arrives to blackmail the Lodge family wears a veneer of courtesy, but switches to brash abruptly, making his death unceremonious and totally expected.

Anything that is supposed to redeem “Suburbicon” as a drama falls flat. While its comedy provides a few laughs, it fails to make up for the film’s lack of organization. Watching a fire truck appear on-screen for five seconds before seeing it return 15 minutes later to crush an unsuspecting driver is jarring and slightly amusing, as is watching Damon drive a tricycle away from the wreckage. But such humor is banal and at times juvenile, disrupting the flow of an already flawed movie. Stylistically, “Suburbicon” looks great and its cast displayed superb acting. It definitely looks like late-‘50s America, with white-picket fences, conservative clothing, and antique televisions. The cast does well to bear with the lackluster material Clooney has given them; Damon especially gives a great performance as the head of a household on the verge of collapse. It’s simply unfortunate that such talent goes to waste in a film of what-could have-been.

Still, I’m left with a nagging sensation; why did I enjoy the film, for all that it sinned and failed to achieve? I believe it’s my familiarity with and love for films by the Coen Brothers. The signature style of a Coen Brothers movie is evident in “Suburbicon,” and it may make my score a little too forgiving. However, it’s a far cry from the masterpieces produced several years before, making the decision to allow Clooney to direct one of their old scripts questionable.

Grade: C-
Director: George Clooney
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Megan Ferguson, Gary Basaraba, Michael D. Cohen
Release Date: October 27, 2017
Rated: R

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures